The House for Swingers

Note: I posted some additional data breakdowns in a comment (7 Nov.)

With the US congressional midterm elections almost upon us, I wanted to put the playing field of 2006 into the context of 1994, the last time the party in control of the House of Representatives swung.

In 1994, fifty six seats held by Democrats swung to the Republican party (four seats swung the other direction). Here is how those seats broke down by Democratic vote in the previous election, 1992. In the following paired lines the first line is a range of votes percentages (of the 2-party vote) for the Democratic candidate in 1992, while the second line is the number of such districts, followed by the number of those districts that swung (and the percentage that these swingers represented out of that group).

    50-51.99
    21 11 (52.4)

    52-54.99
    26 11 (42.3)

    55-59.99
    44 18 (40.9)

    60-64.99
    40 10 (25.0)

    65-69.99
    45 4 (8.9)

    70-79.9
    46 2 (4.4)

Interpreting these numbers, we can say that more than half the districts that the Democratic party had won with less than 52% of the two-party vote in 1992 were seats that swung. (That is somewhat surprisingly low; nearly half of the seats that were won so narrowly in 1992 did not swing, even in a year with a huge national votes swing against their party.) Not surprisingly, as the 1992 margin grows, the share of seats that swung declines. Nonetheless, the Republicans even picked up six seats in which the Democratic incumbent won more than 65% of the vote in 1992 (five of these six were open seats; the incumbent was retiring).

So, what if we compare the 2006 playing field; that is, let’s look at how many seats fit into each of these categories based on their 2004 Republican vote. Again, we have two lines, with the grouping by percentages of the Republican candidate’s vote in the first line and the number of districts in that group on the second line. In addition, I have replicated, in parentheses, the number of districts in this category going into 1994 (for the party then in control, the D’s).

    50-51.99
    6 (21)

    52-54.99
    10 (26)

    55-59.99
    19 (44)

    60-64.99
    38 (40)

    65-69.99
    49 (45)

    70-70.99
    60 (46)

Notice how many fewer close races there were in 2004 compared to 1992. If the Democrats were to have exactly the same “harvest rate” in each group of seats (i.e. 52.4% of the seats the Republican won with under 52%, 42.3% of those won with 52% to 55%, etc.), they would gain about 32 seats. And that is right within the range of current projections–actually, a bit below.

Finally, let’s look at the seats Rothenberg rated late last week as most likely to swing. I have simply taken his categories of seats that are toss-ups or “tilt” or “lean” one way or the other and indicated the vote from 2004. (In this case, the votes indicated are the Democratic sharae of the two-party vote; in some cases, my data are missing.)

    PURE TOSS-UP (20 R, 0 D)
    Dem % vote, 2004
    * CA 11 (Pombo, R) 39.7
    * CT 2 (Simmons, R) —
    * CT 4 (Shays, R) 47.6
    * FL 16 (Open; Foley, R) 32
    * FL 22 (Shaw, R) 36
    * IL 6 (Open; Hyde, R) 44.2
    * KS 2 (Ryun, R) 42.4
    * MN 1 (Gutknecht, R) 37.3
    * MN 6 (Open; Kennedy, R) 46.0
    * NM 1 (Wilson, R) 45.6
    * NY 20 (Sweeney, R) 33.9
    * NY 26 (Reynolds, R) 44.4
    * OH 1 (Chabot, R) 40.1
    * OH 2 (Schmidt, R) 28.3
    * PA 4 (Hart, R) 36.3
    * PA 6 (Gerlach, R) 49
    * PA 8 (Fitzpatrick, R) 43.9
    * TX 22 (Open; DeLay, R) 42.7
    * VA 2 (Drake, R) 44.9
    * WI 8 (Open; Green, R) 29.8

    TOSS-UP/TILT REPUBLICAN (10 R, 0 D)

    * AZ 1 (Renzi, R) 38.2 (48.2 in 2002)
    * CA 4 (Doolittle, R) 34.6
    * CO 4 (Musgrave, R) 46.7
    * ID 1 (Open; Otter, R) 30.5
    * KY 3 (Northup, R) 38.5
    * KY 4 (Davis, R) 44.7
    * NV 3 (Porter, R) 42.6
    * NY 25 (Walsh, R) —
    * NY 29 (Kuhl, R) 44.6
    * WA 8 (Reichert, R) 47.6

    TOSS-UP/TILT DEMOCRATIC (7 R, 3 D)

    * AZ 5 (Hayworth, R) 39.1
    * CT 5 (Johnson, R) 39.0
    * FL 13 (Open; Harris, R) 44.7
    * GA 8 (Marshall, D) 24.4
    * GA 12 (Barrow, D) —
    * IL 8 (Bean, D) —
    * IN 9 (Sodrel, R) 49.7
    * NH 2 (Bass, R) 39.6
    * NY 24 (Open; Boehlert, R) 37.3
    * NC 11 (Taylor, R) 45.1

    LEAN REPUBLICAN (3 R, 0 D)

    * NJ 7 (Ferguson, R) 42.3
    * OH 12 (Tiberi, R) 38
    * TX 23 (Bonilla, R) 29.8

    LEAN DEMOCRATIC (6 R, 1 D)

    * IA 1 (Open; Nussle, R) 44
    * IA 3 (Boswell, D) —
    * IN 2 (Chocola, R) 45.1
    * OH 15 (Pryce, R) 40
    * OH 18 (Open; Ney, R) 33.8
    * PA 7 (Weldon, R) 40.7
    * PA 10 (Sherwood, R) —

That’s a lot of seats in play that were not all that close in 2004, which is good news for Democrats, given how few really close races there were in 2004. By my count, there are eight seats in Rothenberg’s toss-ups in which the Democratic party won under 40% of the vote in 2004. There are five such seats among the tilt-D, and one among the lean-D seats. That’s nineteen of the 147 seats the incumbent of the party currently controlling the House won with from 60% to 80% of the two-party vote in 2004. Seats in that category heading into 1994 swung at a rate of only about 12%. If 12% of the current 147 such seats swung this time, that would be seventeen (of the nineteen such seats Rothenberg identifies as toss-up or lean). In other words, while it may seem unlikely that so many seats that looked “safe” after 2004 could really be in jeopardy, the lesson of 1994 is that when there is a strong tide of change, lots of seemingly “safe” seats do indeed fall. It is not only the obvous “marginals” that fall. (Remember, barely half of the seats won by the Democrat in 1992 with under 52% of the vote swung in 1994.)

We will know soon how many of these seats really do swing.

US House and Senate: Rothenberg’s updates

On the House, Stuart Rothenberg says:

the most likely outcome in the House of Representatives is a Democratic gain of 34 to 40 seats, with slightly larger gains not impossible.

Back when I first started looking at methods of estimating the connection between generic polling, the actual aggregate votes for real candidates of the major parties, and the translation of those votes into seats, I suggested Democrats could wind up with as many as 245 seats (at what I considered the high end), which would be a net gain of 42.* At the time, no one else was projecting even close to that much. If Rothenberg’s district-by-district analysis turns out to be correct, was my aggregate method of estimation prescient or lucky? I don’t know. We’ll try it again in 2008. And 2010…

As for the Senate, Rothernberg says control is in doubt, but:

we do not think the two sides have an equal chance of winning a majority in the Senate. Instead, we believe that state and national dynamics favor Democrats netting six seats and winning control of the United States Senate.


* That was when the generic lead was 15 points; the latest estimate from Charles Franklin’s compilation of polls is 17 points.

Six Senate seats now lean Democratic

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win the majority in the US Senate. According to Stuart Rothenberg’s latest projections, there are now six seats that are either “likely takeover” or “lean takeover.” In addition, there is one “toss-up” that leans their way, though there is also one current Democratic seat that is rated toss-up.

LIKELY TAKEOVER (2 R, 0 D)

* DeWine (R-OH)
* Santorum (R-PA)

LEAN TAKEOVER (4 R, 0 D)

* Allen (R-VA)
* Burns, (R-MT)
* Chafee, (R-RI)
* Talent (R-MO)

TOSS-UP (1 R, 1 D)

* TN Open (Frist, R)
* Menendez (D-NJ)

NARROW ADVANTAGE INCUMBENT PARTY (1 R, 1 D)

* Kyl (R-AZ)
* MD Open (D-Sarbanes)

Midterm election projections

Ed Fitzgerald has a very useful compilation of various midterm-election projections. The mean and median estimates (of over thirty different projects) are 223-204 Democratic majority in the House and 49-49 in the Senate (with eight House and two Senate seats, on average, deemed by the forecasters as too close to call).

Ed also has a graph of generic partisan-preference polling for the House that includes the undecideds. It is striking how flat the Republican preference has been since September, 2005, while the decline in undecided has been almost entirely to the benefit of the Democratic party.

Candidate quality isn’t everything

Back when I first started posting about the relationship between generic party preference and likely actual performance of real candidates in the 2006 US midterm election, I referred to the truism of US congressional elections: The personal vote matters a lot in the USA, and we can’t assume that party preference translates into preference for actual living, breathing candidates of the preferred party; voters may vote for the more qualified individual candidate instead.

However, as Stuart Rothenberg notes, this election is shaping up to be one of those rare cases in which candidate quality may not matter all that much. Surveying the races, including many that are surprisingly competitive, Rothenberg notes:

it is remarkable how similar this group of Democratic candidates is to the GOP class of 1994, when, by my count, 37 freshmen were elected without having held a previous elective office.

How the Dems would organize the House

(Very carefully!)

There is a very good article in the Washngton Post about how Democrats could be expected to organize the House if they win the majority.

The basic summary is that likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to respect seniority in determining committee chairs, but to keep them on a short leash.

This is, of course, about balancing the demands of the Black Caucus (currently 43 members, including many with long tenure) and the conservative Blue Dogs (currently 37 members, with at least a dozen of their endorsed candidates among the most likely challengers to beat Republican incumbents).

Interesting, Republicans are using the prospect of some of the likely chairs (Hastings, Dingell, Rangel) as campaign issues in some races.

A question to ponder (and I do not have an answer) is whether a narrow win or a huge win means more influence for the high-seniority (and often farthest left ideologically) chairs. More seats in the Democratic caucus means more victories in usually safe Republican districts that would be lost quickly by a liberal overreach, but it also potentially means more vindication for the left of the caucus, which will claim a “mandate.” Either way, Pelosi has her work cut out for her (if her party indeed wins).


Thanks, MW, for the tip on this article!